“Take me back to my boat on the river… 

Time stands still as I gaze into her emerald waters… 

Where many streams meet and mingle,

Where the sun plays his game of shadows, illuminating the mist of this enchanting jungle, 

Where she reaches the depths of perfect stillness,

Where overhanging trees make for the greenest lushness,

Where I can disappear to be myself again, where there is no hurry, nothing to hold back,

Where the frown on my face disappears and a gentle calmness takes over,

Bhadra and the tiny boat on this river…”

Bhadra Tiger Reserve is, for me, a place where mythical beings live, amidst nature of such beauty that it inspires my intense relationship with the jungle.

Sunrise on Bhadra River.

When you stay at Jungle Lodges, you are generally awake and anticipating a loud knock on the door at 5:30 a.m. – a signal from the staff that it’s almost time to head out. That morning, I had chosen to take the boat safari. I was excited at the thought of spending a few hours with the Bhadra Reservoir, known to perform magic that stuns all the senses – an enchantress who makes islands disappear and re-appear, and whose depths seem to hold every emotion. After a cup of hot coffee, I stood at the edge of the reservoir waiting for my boat, breathing in the sleepy earth. I remember how that morning felt special, for reasons unknown.

View of the Bhadra Reservoir and JLR’s River Tern Lodge.

Ready for the boat safari.

Winters in Bhadra Tiger Reserve are a sight to behold – its inescapable, dense fog makes for an ethereal experience. Be it the jeep safari or the boat, you cannot help but lose yourself in Bhadra’s seduction. My wonderment was cut short by the staff calling me out to inform me that my boat was ready.

As we headed out, at first, the loud, staccato notes of the engine revving jolted us awake. Eventually, it merged with the steady silence of the waters, and our ears got accustomed to the sound. Almost immediately, our naturalist pointed out a flock of Bar-headed Geese flying above. A lone Little Ringed Plover hurriedly ran along the edge of the water; it was soon joined by a Common Sandpiper that seemed to be leisurely looking for an early morning snack. A few egrets and cormorants sat nonchalantly on tree stumps jutting out of the water. A flock of Ashy Wood Swallows huddled to keep themselves warm. And then came the sunrise – in a moment, the entire landscape turned golden, making life more spectacular than fiction.

A Common Sandpiper, foraging.

An egret cutting through the morning mist.

A couple of Great Thick-knees moved slowly and deliberately on the rocks lining the reservoir’s banks; one seemed to be holding a tiny crab in its beak. As we cruised a little closer, A Red-wattled Lapwing that had stood motionless until now ran away, screaming an alarm, while the thick-knees took to the air, leaving us with the sounds of their powerful wing-beats.

Great Thick-knees

It was still early into the morning when we headed farther down the reservoir. Just then, we spotted a rock ahead, surprisingly clean, jutting out through the fog. I caught the naturalist and driver exchange glances, and the boat was steered towards the rock. As we cruised closer, the engines were turned off, and our naturalist asked us to spot an elephant, hinting that it was in plain view. Our hungry eyes scanned the entire area thoroughly and just as we decided to give up, voila! The “rock” started to move, inconceivably.  

That rock was an elephant – a huge tusker who was floating in these cold waters! After making a few positional changes, he swam across to the nearest bank and got onto the land, back on his feet. That is when we realised what he was up to. The elephant was injured and seemed to have broken a tusk and injured his spine, possibly from a fight with another elephant. Our naturalist conjectured that the cold water possibly helped manage the pain and avoid infections.

The elephant that trumped us.

While all this happened, the sun had come out, and so did raptors – an Osprey sat gloriously on a tree stub, basking in the idyllic glow of the sun. A couple of Grey-headed Fish Eagles had their eyes on us. Though we did not get to watch the famed aerodynamics of Ospreys fishing, we had an excellent time watching them go about their morning chores. These beauties used to be winter migrants earlier, but Bhadra has given a resident population of Ospreys a forever home. Bhadra is also a temporary home to the River Tern, a busy, bright, and stylish bird sporting what looks like the mask of Zorro. This wasn’t the right season to watch their summer mating and breeding spectacle on the reservoir’s islands, but we could still see a few terns flying around. Some of them had stayed back, and our naturalist called them “inspectors”, possibly here to inspect the grounds and pass on the message to flocks for the upcoming summer. 

River Tern

Osprey

Grey-headed Fish Eagles

The sun was rising quickly, and it was time for us to head back. As we cruised back, we saw an Indian Spotted Eagle soaring up in the sky while a noisy kingfisher lifted off from its comfortable perch with the familiar “chake-ake-ake-ake-ake” sound. A Lesser Adjutant Stork caught our eyes, actively scanning the area for prey.

Lesser Adjutant Stork

A tree that was bare and leafless on our onward journey now looked full. It did not take much time for my heart to beat loudly with excitement – the bare tree was now adorned with a large number of Malabar Pied Hornbills, and their numbers swelled by the minute. Their funky headgear and dapper black-and-white plumage stood out against the empty branches. A loud, raucous cacophony of continuous “kak-kaks” brought tremendous joy, for hornbills hold a special place in my heart.

Malabar Pied Hornbills

After mooring at the dock, I walked towards a sumptuous breakfast, while still thinking about the flock and the “rock” – a memory that I will cherish forever.